Higher education

Higher education, in general, refers to education beyond the secondary level. Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Cambodia can be classified into three categories: The Royal Academy, university, and college. Cambodia’s higher education consists of an associate degree, four years of undergraduate education, two years of Master’s education, and three to six years of Ph.D.1

Before the current development, Cambodia's education system was demolished during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) and was only able to rebuild after the era ended. This period saw the reopening of some universities built before the Khmer Rouge era, such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh.2 Since then, the Kingdom began to expand and restructure higher education by establishing private higher education institutions and introducing fee-paying programs for both public and private ones. In 1997, the first private higher education institution was established under this policy.3 Later on, both public and private HEIs began to grow from 8 in 1997 to 70 in 2009 to 128 in 2020, residing in 20 provinces and the capital.4 Furthermore, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS) oversees 80 of the 128 HEIs.5


Higher education enrollment climbed from 28,080 students in 2000 to 223,221 in 2010,6 and 201,900 including 155 international students in 2020-21. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a decline in bachelor degree student enrollment in the academic year 2019-20, but there has been a rise in doctorate degree enrollment.7 The gross enrolment rate (18 to 22 years old) has also increased from 6% in 2006 to 10% in 2018.8 However, the rate is still relatively low as it has not reached 23%, a target set by MoEYS.9 A low enrollment rate can result from the lack of universities in provinces, making it difficult for students to migrate to the capital. Furthermore, the language barrier is one of the variables that constrain rural students' motivation to pursue higher education, as provincial students find it challenging to enroll in courses in other languages.10 Another reason was that many students failed the upper secondary exam due to the anti-cheating examination measure reform and thus did not qualify for enrollment in the foundation year of higher education. Instead, some of them choose to get an associate's degree. On the bright side, it is anticipated that the number of students enrolled in higher education in 2030 will be twice as many as those enrolled in 2018. MoEYS set the target enrollment ratio at 22.7% in 2024 till 2028 and 25% in 2030.11

In terms of major selection, most higher education students opt for a social science specialization and only about 30% enroll in STEM majors (Science, Information technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).12 Since the number of students studying STEM is small, MoEYS has worked to promote and increase students' access to STEM in higher education by establishing new training and programs concentrating on STEM. Moreover, Cambodia also faces the master’s degree gap challenge, which requires more investment in STEM-related majors.13

Higher education scholarship

Public HEIs offer many scholarships to students in the form of tuition waivers. Government scholarship covers approximately 15% of enrolment.14 MoEYS established a fully-funded scholarship program to support freshmen in higher education. The selection criteria are based on sex, location, and achievement of the students, which are based on the following combination: poor students (20%), female students (15%), disadvantaged areas (5%), outstanding students (60%), and enrolment in priority majors.15 In collaboration with partners, the kingdom has also sent 437 (143 females) Cambodian scholarship students abroad, ranging from vocational training to doctoral studies.16 Future plans will also be conducted to assist the scholarship students as MoEYS will formulate the policy on scholarship provision and credits for students in higher education while also increasing dormitories for female students.17

Higher education reforms

Cambodia has yet to become a knowledge-based society, but the country hopes to make the transition from a labor-intensive to a knowledge-based society. Given that Cambodian higher education is evolving, the country was ranked 75th out of 100 countries in terms of higher education quality according to the Readiness for the future of production report 2018 by the World Economic Forum, whereas other countries in the region such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand were ranked 23rd, 27th, and 28th, respectively.18 Besides university quality and performance, Cambodia also lacks research capacity in higher education. Cambodia came at 8th among the ten ASEAN members, concerning the outputs of research publications in higher education between 2010 to 2019.19 Thereof, reforms are much needed to assist the country achieve this goal.20 Most higher education reforms also concentrate and reflect on education quality enhancement and the efficiency of governance and management in higher education. Recognizing the importance of higher education as a key strategy to achieve such a goal, as well as the need for regional and international integration, the MoEYS has introduced a number of key policies and reforms, such as Policy on Higher Education Vision 2030, Policy on Higher Education Governance and Finance for Cambodia, and Cambodian Higher Education Roadmap 2030 and Beyond.21 To achieve the objectives listed under these policies, three organizational structure levels are required to work collaboratively, including the Supreme National Council of Education, a Higher Education Technical Working Group Committee, and Implementing Ministries/Agencies/Institutes/Parents and Students/Development Partners.22

In 2003, the government established the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC), an independent entity tasked with overseeing and improving institutions' academic quality and management system that aim to grant bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs in Cambodia. The committee also develops policies and regulations on accreditation to enhance the quality of all HEIs in the country.23

After the mid-term review in 2016, MoEYS revised education policies and enhanced the quality of higher education in Cambodia. MoEYS has reduced the number of education policies from three to two to be aligned with SDG 4. The two medium-term policies are (1) ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and (2) ensuring effective leadership and management of education officials at all levels.24 Results from the sub-sector progress provided that higher education under these two policies have achieved some specific results, such as the percentage age of students enrolled in STEM program, number of centers of excellence, number of HEIs that implement internal quality assurance system, and number of HEIs that provide input data into the higher education management information system (HEMIS) while the rest of the other goals are likely to be met. This progress report is vital as MoEYS will use it to make recommendations and plan future budgets for higher education. 25

Aside from reforms and system improvements, MoEYS has also concentrated on building the capacity of higher education officials to guarantee that responsibilities are carried out effectively through training and the exchange of information and experiences. MoEYS sent staff to attend various overseas meetings, conferences, and seminars such as curriculum development and evaluation in Romania, Italy, and Malaysia, the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network Executive Committee Meeting and the Extraordinary Roundtable of the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network 2020 in Indonesia, the Higher Education Integration and Accreditation Technical Meeting in Vietnam, etc.26

Financing in higher education

Funding for higher education is relatively small in Cambodia compared to other countries in the region.27 Some large HEIs in Phnom Penh received approximately 10% to 30% of their support from the government, leaving the remaining costs to tuition fees.28 In comparison, HEIs in several ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Thailand rely roughly 80% to 90% of their higher education expenditures on the government.29 Cambodia’s Education 2030 Roadmap: Sustainable Goal 4 document also addressed the funding gap in higher education and provided that the higher education in Cambodia is not ready to receive significant investment yet.​ However, the HEIs are encouraged to seek their own funding from partners or private funding.30 

Development partners also provide small but substantial contributions to the development of higher education. Still, it is minimal due to the government’s concentration on primary and basic education (EFA, SDG 4).31 The flow of funding from development partners usually allocated for basic education.32 World Bank is one of Cambodia’s active development partners in education. The Higher Education Improvement Program (HEIP) (2018-2024) was undertaken by the World Bank and the Cambodian government, with a budget of $90 million from the World Bank and $2.5 million from the Cambodian government. The project’s goal is to develop learning and teaching capability, conduct STEM and agriculture research, and strengthen the higher education system's governance framework.33


Despite growth and achievement, higher education in Cambodia still confronts some challenges including access, quality, equity, relevancy, funding, management and administration. Many ministries and agencies are involved in higher education, which makes coordination a challenge due to quality control, administrative overlap, and information exchange.34 In some HEIs, teaching and equipment management are insufficient. There are approximately 1,662 higher education teachers at public higher education institutions; however, they lack adequate academic backgrounds. In addition, some HEIs lack the necessary resources for research which prevents faculty members from conducting research for publication. 35

As a result, significant investment is required to boost the number of full-time lecturers with PhDs in HEIs. This would provide them adequate time and advanced capability to generate high-quality graduates who meet labor market requirements and international standards. Alongside, the process of granting financial and human resource management autonomy has yet to be completed as expected. Resolving this governance issue is critical for enhancing financial and human resource management systems and ensuring HEIs' financial stability, sustainability, and resource strength.36

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak has also obstructed students’ physical learning at all levels, including higher education students. In response, MoEYS has coordinated the process of offering e-learning services such as Microsoft Office 365, Google Meet, Google Classroom, ZOOM, and other tools to assist students in their learning.37

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